Originally publish in the New Haven Register
Halloween was over a month ago — a day to revel over ghoulish characters and hideous images. And now we are supposed to be in a season of merry.
These days, though, it seems like scenes reminiscent of Halloween continue to haunt us. The latest dread is the report released last Tuesday by the Senate Intelligence Committee about the CIA’s use of torture on over 100 al-Qaida suspects.
What was released to the public has been notoriously dubbed the “CIA Torture Report.” It is an abbreviated version of a large series of fact finding notes that chronicle a five-year, post-911 period (from 2002 to 2007) of brutal interrogations of prisoners in secretive cells, called “black site prisons,” that were installed and operated by the CIA in countries outside the U.S.
Make no mistake. The accounts are chilling. They include torture tactics such as 130-plus hours of sleep deprivation often in the standing position, chaining prisoners to a ceiling for long periods so that they were forced to defecate on themselves, placing them in ice water baths and other hypothermia-inducing conditions, waterboarding, long confinement in isolation in coffin-sized boxes, beatings while naked, forced pumping of liquids and food contents into the rectum, and other ghastly acts that were meant to coerce prisoners into revealing intelligence information. At least one of the prisoners died from the torture. About one in five suspects were later found to have been mistakenly apprehended. The larger segment of the report (just under 90 percent of it) is classified, and there are speculations of a host of undocumented events or even destroyed files. Do we know just the tip of the iceberg? Will we ever know the depth of the atrocities?
It’s curious though that many of the major debates in the media over the CIA reports were of two types. Firstly, experts argued that the tactics were wrong, not so much because torture is an offense, but mainly because they didn’t work and that the CIA lied to the executive branch about their effectiveness during their operation. The “enhanced” interrogations were supposed to yield crucial information, but instead they usually led to forced confessions of misinformation. Secondly, there was the fear in the wake of the reports of a violent reaction from the Muslim world.
Want to know this Muslim-American’s reaction?
Firstly, it was the same reaction as many Americans — agony for his country. Sadly, torture is a widespread epidemic that is rampant in every continent. And Muslim extremists are close to the top of the list. But, as Americans, we should not claim to be a moral compass for the world if our arrows are actually pointing 180 degrees in the opposite direction. The hypocrisy makes us look worse than the nations that openly endorse prisoner brutality. We are supposed to be fighting a war on terror. And yet these disturbing reports blur the lines between terrorist and victim. The silver lining on this cloudy moment in our history is that Congress had the courage to call out the problem.
My second reaction was of remorse. I wished the CIA knew or cared about the advice given by the founder of Islam the Prophet Muhammad 1,400 years ago on treating prisoners. He advised that war in general was to be avoided to the greatest extent. If armed conflict was inevitable, and, that too, only to defend yourself, then the prisoners arising from the conflict were to be clothed, fed, and cared for as well or better than yourselves. In particular, no harm was to come upon them in captivity. No ifs, ands, or buts. Their freedom was also to be expedited. For example, a prisoner could earn his freedom by teaching someone basic instruction in reading or writing. I believe the instructions of the Prophet are beautifully mirrored today in the form of the Geneva Conventions. It’s too bad that President Bush signed an executive order in 2002 stating that the Geneva Conventions didn’t apply to the treatment of al-Qaida or Taliban suspects. When you start making distinctions about how to treat people, you go down a slippery slope.
For me, the other cause for remorse was that the reaction among some Muslim leaders needs to be more aligned with the Prophet’s noble teachings. Certainly, the CIA reports expose the extreme of hatred that unfortunately exists among groups today. But respond to hatred the way the Prophet did. Win over your enemies with patience, prayer, and forbearance.
So let’s break the cycle of vengeance. Kudos to the Senate for their policing actions. The threat of extremism is real and undeniable, and intelligence agencies like the CIA need to thwart the menace, but without compromising humane principles. As a Muslim, my reaction to the report is to promote the Prophet Muhammad’s enduring advice to provide just and fair treatment to prisoners. But this shouldn’t just be about a Muslim reaction. And the debate shouldn’t be over whether torture tactics work; they are just plain wrong. As we go into the holidays and the New Year, as a nation, let’s end the horror show with a unified resolution. We should have nothing to do with torture.